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We could end famine if we cut food waste by a quarter – so why don’t we?

By Jonathan Kent/The Guardian

As Miss Piggy once sagely advised: “Never eat more than you can lift.” The trouble is that we seem to buy food as though we intend to do just this and as a result a huge amount goes to waste.

According to the UN, developed countries throw away around 30-40% of all food purchased. And if food waste was cut by a quarter, world famine could be solved. Here in the UK, of the 41m tonnes of food that is bought each year, 15m is wasted.

Supermarkets have an interest in avoiding waste because margins on fresh produce tend to be quite tight. If you make 25p for every £1 of broccoli sold you have to sell three pieces to make up for the loss from one gone bad. So if you have noticed fewer items with reduced stickers, it’s because they’re getting a grip. What waste remains is at least partly driven by consumers expecting fresh food items to be constantly available and stacked in attractive displays – both factors pushing food retailers to order more than they can sell.

The biggest contributor to our food-waste shame is household rubbish, which accounts for almost half the food thrown away in the UK. Of course many of us make bad decisions about food, especially when we’re hungry, over-ordering in restaurants and over-buying in shops. The most primitive parts of our brains, faced with feast, react as though famine were just around the corner.

And yet the game seems to be stacked against consumers. Supermarkets may strive to eliminate spoilage while food is in their supply chain, but once you’ve paid for something it’s not their problem. They’d argue, not unfairly, that they have tried to ensure the food you buy is as fresh as possible to give you the best possible chance to consume it before it goes bad. Back in 2010 Tesco even briefly experimented with a “buy one, get one free later” scheme to help reduce waste. But for the most part, food retail is structured and incentivised to get us to buy as much as possible, regardless of whether we actually need it.

In the developing world only 6-15% of food gets thrown out despite poorer infrastructure, less reliable logistics, hotter climates and inferior refrigeration. Indeed weight for weight, in places such as sub-Saharan Africa and south and south-east Asia, people waste only around a tenth of what we do. The overwhelming differentiator seems to be the value that we attach to food. Having a full fridge to cater to our every whim and those of our families seems more important than not having a full bin.

Until we truly know what it is like not to have enough (and while too many people in this wealthy country of ours have been finding out, few of us really know what it’s like to go without) we’ll continue to throw away food in obscene quantities. And neither technology nor the sight of people leaving lands of not enough for places of plenty is likely to change that.

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